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review 2018-04-17 18:16
The Best We Could Do - an affecting graphic memoir
The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir - Thi Bui

Thanks to some challenges I found in recent years (and directions from the web on how to read them,) I've finally taken graphic novels/comics as something I could understand and perhaps even like. This graphic memoir is a nice example of why it's worthwhile to open my TBR list up to yet another genre. (I can be poorly read in many genres!)

 

Thi Bui is an American kid born in Viet Nam. When the memoir opens, she's having her first child. As many parents will tell you, this is a time that often brings our own childhoods into focus. Her story is different from the stereotypical strict immigration story, and through the memoir we see that the family history is indelibly marked by Viet Nam's history and her parents stories are marked by their parents' stories. It's easy to get tied in a knot when we find fault with our parents. It's clear from her pictures and words that there was some anger and confusion exorcised by writing this memoir. While she may have been able to lay blame at one time, her title states her final view. It's Thi Bui's unique story with lots of room for empathizing readers.

 

Her simple-yet-resonant art conveys the emotional impact of her words. The combination is effective and moving. I lingered over this book for weeks, searching the pictures and immersing myself in her story (until the library demanded I return their copy.) If you, like me, aren't comfortable with comics or graphic novels, this might be a place to start for those who like memoirs or history or both.

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review 2018-04-15 20:34
A Lucky Child (A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy)
A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy - Thomas Buergenthal,Elie Wiesel

For being about the horrors of Nazi occupation of Europe and the Holocaust, this wasn't a difficult  read. The author, Thomas Buergenthal, writes about his childhood in an approachable manner. It probably helps that he's writing it several decades after the fact - the pain and anger he would have felt during and immediately after the events have had time to heal. It's light on details of the day-to-day activities of those years, as he and his family were first on the run from Germans, then living in the Jewish ghetto in Poland, then the various concentration camps he was imprisoned in. As a result, it glosses over a lot of the horrors, focusing instead on events that stick out to him most - but those events are rather harrowing in themselves. He doesn't linger on them though. Some might find this lack of detail frustrating, others may be relieved. I've read other accounts of the Holocaust, most memorably Elie Wiesel's Night, so I was able to fill in what wasn't there. 

 

This felt like a very honest and intimate account of his days surviving WWII and the Holocaust. His writing here is flowing and stark, and he doesn't get bogged down with unnecessary repetition like last few autobiographies I've read. He was indeed a "lucky" child to survive Dr. Mengele and Auschwitz. Speaking of Night, they were both clearly in Auschwitz at the same time, as they both describe the Death March with the same sort of dreadful resignation. He was lucky many other times in order to survive, and that continues even after his liberation as he details how he was eventually reunited with his mother.

 

One cannot stress enough how important this time period was to the shaping of the world as it is today and why it's necessary that it continue to be taught in our schools. Buergenthal's work in international humanitarian law is inspirational and reminds us that, no matter how bleak things can still appear, there is hope for improvement and that things already have improved in many places. We can make the world a better place, but we can only do that by remembering the atrocities that came before and striving not to repeat them.

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review 2018-04-09 17:55
Rainbirds - psychological book about grief and family with a haunting atmosphere
Rainbirds - Clarissa Goenawan

A family falling apart at the seams, held together and pushed apart by secrets and a chill between parents who don't speak to each other or their children left Ren Ishido and his sister Keiko raising themselves and each other. Keiko disappeared once when Ren was a child, and now she has disappeared permanently - murdered in the small town of Akakawa where she taught at a local cram school.

 

Ren goes to Akakawa deal with the funeral and closing down his sister's affairs. He would like the local police to solve his sister's murder, but they don't get a lot of practice and he doesn't have much faith in their ability or will to solve it. Right away, Ren learns that his sister may be different than he'd imagined from their weekly phone calls. Before long Ren has put his life and graduate school in Tokyo on hold to take over his sister's job and room and possibly life in Akakawa. Slowly and somewhat haphazardly he unravels Keiko's, his family's and the town's long-held secrets in an effort to find the sister he lost.

 

This is a beautiful psychological book about grief and family with a haunting presence throughout. The atmosphere is positively alive while reading it, making it hard to put down or shake off easily. Ren is haunted by his dreams and I was too! There is suspense, but it's not at all your average whodunnit or even primarily a mystery. If I'd gone in with expectations of a mystery, I would be let down. As it was, I was happy to find a little mystery wrapped in a family story. Who did it is secondary to the portrayal of family and a young man dealing with his isolation, remembering things, misremembering, always reaching out to the sister he wishes he'd known better during her life.

 

A melancholy portrayal of grief that is also funny, even scandalous at times, with a mystery in the midst of it. With all of the emotions that attend sudden/violent death, Ishido possesses a certain charming grace. I could physically feel the rain in this book, the atmosphere was so thick. So be on the lookout for more from Clarissa Goenawan. RAINBIRDS is an affecting debut that should interest both suspense lovers as well as family saga readers.

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review 2018-04-04 05:59
Middlesex -- So much better than I had imagined
Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides

Edit: I've been thinking about this since, and I've come to the conclusion this book couldn't be written today (in 2018) while it seemed daring and real just a few years ago. There's more to that conversation, but I'm still judging this based on the time in which it was written. And I'm still very glad it was written and I got to read it.

 

Back to your previously scheduled program:

 

I was rather shocked at how good this is. I couldn't wrap my head about the blurbs. The idea of a book about an intersexual person sounded like it would be a political or medical diatribe, or possibly a whiny "poor me" tale falsely disguised as fiction. I realized Jeffrey Eugenides was not writing his personal story, but I did have the idea that this was still somehow a disguised bit of biography -- perhaps it is. If I was a real book reviewer, I'd have to look that up, but I'm not. No matter its origins, it doesn't read like any of these usually disguised things, and it's really very good.

Funny as could be, almost every line is quotable. This is more of an historical novel than just one person's story. It's a family story that is more vital to the man telling it than most. Cal née Calliope Stephanides is proof of a family secret in his very being. It will take a trip across the ocean at the end of the Greco-Turkish War and the accidents of love in the close-knit Detroit community for the secret to reveal itself through three generations of Stephanides. Even then Calliope is a child and hasn't been educated to the multitudinous ways genetics and gender (nevermind sexuality) can play out. So this is a very original coming-of-age story, a medical history, the story of forbidden love and much more in just over 500 pages of stunning prose.

Marvelously detailed, interesting and well-researched, with decent and realistic portrayals of all genders, from the roaring twenties through the twenty-first century, love and marriage, Detroit, and America/Americans broadly, Eugenides is a smart writer with a warm, welcoming voice. The word most likely to describe it would be "charming." While occasionally I got sniffy about some of the ease with which Cal seemed to make his decisions, it would have turned into a fake memoir if we went through every painstaking detail. He seemed a bit naive at times, then Eugenides would have him say something about his upbringing or family to remind me that he, in fact, was naive. Kids were much more naive in pre-internet days, or if not naive, often just plain confused or wrong. Cal is clearly not the type who would pour out his feelings anyway. When I know a character well enough to know why she does or doesn't do things, it's usually a good sign the writer has gotten his story and his characters under my skin.

I can see why Oprah picked Middlesex for her book club years ago. The voices are all supremely individual and Cal is a charming narrator, but Cal - while being the main character - is almost incidental to the overall story in some ways. I wish I'd read this with a group, because the discussion could go on forever. This is one of those books I knew I "should" read, and I didn't really have much interest. It didn't sound appealing, but I passed it on a shelf at the library last week and obviously picked it up. A different copy will find itself in my home soon, because I will certainly want to read it again and urge others to do the same. So, hey you - if you've not read it, take the leap. It's so much better than it sounds.

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review 2018-03-31 17:03
F Scott Fitzgerald's letters - a side not seen in his fiction.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters: A New Collection Edited and Annotated by Matthew J. Bruccoli - F. Scott Fitzgerald,Matthew J. Bruccoli

I have a whole new appreciation for F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing now, having read his doubts, worries, exacting notes to his publisher, concerns that nobody would "get" it. This man who seems so sure of himself in all of his novels is a worrier, scared, desperate to be a good writer (even after his early success.) In short, he's very human.

 

I reread Gatsby while reading this correspondence, and given his personal financial worries, apologies to those he owed money to, etc, I have a different take on it now than I did before - partly influenced also by my advancing age and events of the last decade or so. I wonder if Fitzgerald - great American novelist - didn't wonder, from time to time, if the American Dream was a crock? Dunno - just a thought.

 

It was exciting to hear him introducing other great writers (Hemingway, for instance) to literary agents and critics. He was genuinely in awe of other writers. His letter to Willa Cather and his words about her in letters to others show he was truly a fan - you can tell from the deferential tone. And while he may have been less than level-headed from moment to moment, or way too far in his cups, he was funny, personable and interesting always.

 

Sadly we're limited to the letters saved. This means that a bunch written to Zelda aren't included, since she didn't save her letters from him. (No remarks on that, Ella!) I've always sort of loved Zelda, but it's clear from these letters that so did F. Scott Fitzgerald, or at least he repeated it to everyone he wrote.

 

These are worth reading if you're nosy like me.

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